Identity Abroad through Pop Music

I never really listened to pop music much in the US. I was the weird kid in 2nd grade when the teacher asked who their favorite band was, I said the Beatles, while everyone else listened to Britney and NSYNC. In middle school, people had Green Day and Eminem pumping on their ten-pound iPod bricks. I had George Harrison.

This was partially because my dad was a product of the 60s and 70s. He was a drummer in bands of the era, playing Led Zeppelin, Beatles, Pink Floyd and CCR. Naturally, I listened to this type of classic rock growing up with the windows down and a spring breeze whipping through my hair on my umpteen drives to faraway soccer games.

It was also partially because of the influence of my older brother, who was a hipster growing up in Brooklyn in the early noughties. For them, you couldn’t like anything cool, and so that meant pop music was off limits for me.

This isn’t to say I entirely regret that. I discovered loads of music that made me happy that didn’t necessarily find it’s way to a Top 40 list, and that’s AOK. If a song makes you smile, it’s a good song in my book.

It wasn’t until high school and college when I realized the power of pop though. There are huge gaps in my knowledge of pop music from when I was younger. I simply never listened to it regularly. But pop music from high school and college has left an indelible mark.

I have a Spanish friend who once said, wisely, “Americans know how to ruin any good pop song.” And he’s right. We just play it on the radio 100 times a day and there you go. Song ruined. I have flipped through the radio numerous times only to find three stations playing an identical song. It’s like having for gas stations on the same corner. Yes it is logical and yes I think it still seems stupid.

It’s hard to do anything in the US and not be struck by our pop music. It’s in stores, on the radio, on TV, in ads. It’s everywhere, with it’s regular time signature, familiar chord structures and predictable lyrics. American pop is part of the fabric of being American, in a way, even without knowing it. Beyonce is debatably a top 5 most influential person in this country.

Pop Music as Identity of a Foreigner

So when I started working in China, my music tastes didn’t change all that much. I listened to the same old “indie” stuff, classic rock and the occasional EDM song for which college instilled in me a slight love. I still eschewed the poppy stuff my country produces with great regularity. Ariana, Katy, FOB – none of that for me.

Until the first day I flew back to the US from China, after six months of working abroad. Some things I came home to and it felt normal. American food is still greasy and large-portioned. American people are still chunky and friendly. American TV is still highly-produced and cheesy. All of that I knew and could deal with.

But the first night I went out and heard Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ This is What You Came For, I thought I was listening to a brand new song. Nope my friends informed me. This had been out for months. And it continued all night. Everyone dancing and singing to familiar songs at the bars, and me being left out.

Left out of my own culture.

That was bizarre. Dancing and singing are inherently communal activities and I was the weird kid in high school sitting on the bleachers will everyone is out dancing at center court. (Except this time I had an excuse.)

Pop music is integral to an American identity, or at least my American identity. That’s a weird feeling, particularly as I never listened to pop growing up. Every time I’m at a bar in China and hear an American pop song, I am transported to a different time, place and feel.

I even started listening to Top 40 playlists on YouTube just to stay in touch. I had Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You for the first time on YouTube, as well as Sia’s Cheap Thrills.

The weirdest part of this? Calvin Harris is Scottish, Ed Sheeran is English, and Sia is Australian. The US seems to appropriate so international pop music to the point that going out in the US seems to necessitate having heard these artists.

Too many times at bars in China, locals have made fun of me for not knowing my own country’s music, only to find out the artist was from somewhere else.

In short, pop music is integral to (my) identity as an American abroad in China, in a way I never felt it was growing up.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Agree? Disagree? Is the US guilt of cultural appropriation yet again?

Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!

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3 thoughts on “Identity Abroad through Pop Music

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  1. With havin so much content do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright violation? My website has a lot of exclusive content I”ve either authored myself or outsourced but it seems a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my agreement. Do you know any methods to help reduce content from being ripped off? I”d certainly appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment!

      I have to admit that up to this point, I haven’t experienced anything. While I think theft is possible, I’m not super worried.

      I consulted an article that put my mind at ease:

      I hope that if my/your/anyone’s content and style is unique, it will stand out as solely mine/yours/someone’s.

      I think there’s always ways to steal stuff, and I won’t be able to prevent it. I think if you see it somewhere, a cease and desist type letter might be useful. That being said, one cannot copyright an idea per se, so for travel writing I think the gray area is quite massive. Anyone can cover a similar topic, but my angle is mine alone.

      I hope that’s not too vague and is somewhat helpful. Thanks for reading and commenting!!!


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